Sep 232016
 

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by Rick Boettger…….

County Attorney Bob Shillinger on Destroying SUFA: “In other words, this was all a setup to give the contract to somebody else.”

That was his response in an attorney-client closed session to Commissioner George Neugent’s question, “Where do we stand right now?” This was in April of 2012. The County had destroyed Stand Up For Animals, which had an outstanding record of animal control in the Middle Keys for 7 years, by freezing their funds. The Third District Court of Appeals had ruled the injunction illegal, meaning the County had just lost the $250,000 SUFA had accumulated in donations used to benefit our animals.

So the Commissioners were scrambling. Shillinger was answering that if the County fought on, SUFA would make the counterclaim that it was a “breach of contract . . . a setup . . .” The County made the bad decision to continue litigating for four more years, losing at every turn. They finally settled with Linda Gottwald because they did not want a jury to hear the evidence against the County, evidence that I say proves the County did exactly what Shillinger said.

The closed session transcripts were finally made available a few months ago. I have waited on reporting them until the Florida Ethics Commission made its rulings on my three complaints against Neugent, which they did on July 29th. The main complaint was for official misconduct, saying Neugent used his position to secure a special benefit for others. The other two complaints were for financial improprieties: not reporting a golf club membership worth $1,500/quarter for six years (six counts, as the reporting threshold is $100); and not filing proper financial disclosure forms (two counts, two years, including a little matter of a $100,000 annuity).

While the Commission found Neugent guilty of 8 counts on two of my complaints, they found “insufficient evidence” that George used his influence to kill SUFA and award their contract to others. This is, astoundingly, because the Ethics commission NEVER finds enough such evidence, even when the public official has been reprimanded by another official agency. The Ethics Commission exists not to punish bad officials, but to protect them—the EC enables and facilitates official corruption.

I will be doing a more comprehensive, scientific investigation and prosecution of the Ethics Commission for the next few years, and will report on it as it progresses. Right now, I want to review the gross miscarriage of justice that occurred in the “setup to give [SUFA’s] contract to someone else.” I have done this at some length in the past, but now there is much more evidence from the closed session hearings against George, the other County Commissioners, the County Attorney’s office and local judge, the government Ethics “watchdog”-cum enabler, other Keys media, my fellow citizens, and the former County Clerk. I will be writing separate columns over the coming months detailing each of their crimes separately, adding the vital new material I had not had before.

This is important because what our government did to a wonderful group of animal protectors was terrible and must not happen again. In my next column I will write my overview of the case. Then I will describe SUFA, and the organization of George’s friends that took over the contract and failed miserably. Next will be how George was the primary instigator of this takeover. Then, how the other Commissioners enthusiastically followed George’s lead, no matter how the evidence and court rulings piled up against them.

Reading the closed session transcripts gave me new unsettling evidence about how our taxpayer-paid County Attorney’s office regards their job: not to serve We the People, but to advocate on behalf of our politicians as eagerly as any mob attorney ever worked for the Mafia. Saddest is the breach of faith of our similarly taxpayer-funded “Ethics” commissioners. The hundreds of wronged citizens who over the years have sent in voluminous amounts of evidence against public officials, only to have the Ethics people unrelentingly throw out the charges, have been severely wronged.

The Keys media and public at large have also been culpable in letting this happen. That gets the penultimate column. I will conclude with the most puzzling aspect of the case. How the revered then-Clerk, now-Commissioner Danny Kolhage, let himself get roped into this, filing and illegally releasing an incompetently biased and incorrect preliminary audit to the press, without any of SUFA’s probative defenses. I hope he can explain this to me. His auditor herself left town, I trust in shame over what she had done.

This whole horrible fiasco has cost us, the taxpayers of Monroe County, at least a million dollars, which I will chronicle through the weeks. That makes over two Monique Acevedo’s, using her crime as a unit worth $417,000. She went to jail. George will get a slap on the wrist for far worse financial reporting than Linda Gottwald was accused of, none of which was true. A lesson must be learned. Right now, every business taking a penny from our County masters is in great danger, even righteous nonprofit boards. We cannot let this happen again.

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Rick Boettger
Rick Boettger had a Top Secret security clearance in the Army and studied nuclear chemistry at MIT and law at Yale before getting a PhD in business at Berkeley. He earned tenure as a business professor at TCU in Fort Worth before going to Moscow as a Fulbright Professor, writing a book on the economy, hosting a semi-national talk radio show, and retiring to Key West in 1996 at the age of 48. Since then he has worked part-time as a tax and financial advisor, and has been doing investigative journalism since he began at the Blue Paper in 2007​. He is very happily married to his superb copy-editor Cynthia Edwards, the former long-time PIO for the Key West Police Department.
 September 23, 2016  Posted by at 1:06 am * Featured Story *, Issue #185, Rick Boettger  Add comments

  11 Responses to ““In other words, this was all a setup to give the contract to somebody else.””

  1. Good job.

  2. I find it difficult to understand that Schillinger didn’t know from day one what was really going on in such a small town. Everyone else did.

  3. I have to wonder why everyone holds Danny Kolhage in such high regard. He actually seems pretty shady to me.

    Anyhow, I love that you’re writing about this. I’m especially looking forward to what you have to say about the role of the Clerk’s office in all this. The BOCC can do a lot of damage with the “right” Clerk in office. “Right” meaning one who’s willing to conduct misleading audits, engage in creative accounting, etc.

  4. Another excellent expose, Rick!
    I am certain this cause consumes a great deal of your time and energy. It will help keep your mind sharp, but i wonder how many realize what a great service you perform for the community?
    This banana republic corruption in local and state government has got to stop before the riots begin. But it will never stop until enough deceit and malfeasance is exposed that eventually enough people take notice and take a sincere interest in making their little part of the world a better environment.
    I eagerly look forward to the series detailing your research!

  5. When this all began, I was incredulous at the amount and degree of lies that spewed from Gastesi, Neugent and Schillinger, both to the media and to the BOCC. Auditor Sandy Mathena, however, pulled off the greatest fib, intentionally falsifying an audit report. Whoever heard of an auditor that never bothered to interview the director or accountant of an organization?

    After reading the closed session transcripts,however, it became apparent that the BOCC, the Key West Citizen and The Keynoter, in order to save face, ignored the growing evidence that they had been duped. The BOCC’s solution? To push forward with more and more litigation until SUFA had “burned through their savings”.Meanwhile, they had no problem burning through taxpayer dollars.

    Thank you, Rick, for pursuing the real story. I look forward to your investigation of the Florida Ethics Committee.

  6. You have done a heap of work on this, Rick, and I hope you do get to the bottom of it. But as far as something like this never happening again, I don’t see that coming true in the Florida Keys, or anywhere.

    You wrote: “…the Ethics commission NEVER finds enough such evidence, even when the public official has been reprimanded by another official agency. The Ethics Commission exists not to punish bad officials, but to protect them—the EC enables and facilitates official corruption.”

    I arrived at that same conclusion about 8 years ago. And at the same conclusion about the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, about 8 years ago. And at the same conclusion about the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, after the blue paper broke the Charles Emiers case. And at the same conclusion about State Attorney Catherine Vogel, after watching how she seeded the grand jury she convened to insure the Key West cops would get a free pass in the Eimers case.

    That’s the way it is, and the only justice that really can be counted on is in the court of public opinion and in God’s Court, where you are trying the SUFA case now, using the blue paper as the vehicle.

    As for the SUFA case, I think I recall Linda Gottwald initially declined to make SUFA’s records available to Danny Kohlage, which had something to do with him taking the drastic action he took?

    I personally spoke on the telephone with Linda, she called me after someone had told her, as I recall, that she should speak with me about the SUFA case and what Danny Kohlage had done. I think Linda and I spoke perhaps 20 minutes. I recall I was out walking in my neighborhood when she called me, and I walked and talked a while with her.

    I told Linda I knew little of the story, only what I had seen in the newspapers, and what then concerned me was she had not told the county commissioners at a commission meeting in Marathon I had attended, that she was leaving SUFA and the Florida Keys, even as she was asking the county commissioners to give SUFA more money than in the past, which they were under the impression she would be managing. And she was getting money from outside sources, grants, donations, which she did not reveal to the county commissioners when she stood before them asking for more money for SUFA than already was bring provided by the county commission.

    I told LInda she should have told the commissioners she was leaving SUFA and the Keys, they were entitled to know that, since it was she they were looking at to run SUFA. I told Linda she should have told the county commissioners about the other ways SUFA was getting money.

    Linda didn’t seem to like hearing me say that. She asked me if I had a problem with SUFA making money? No, I said. But she should have told the commissioners about SUFA’s other sources of money.

    The other thing I told Linda bothered me was I had heard or read she had carried a number of SUFA unwanted animals, dogs as I recall, in a county vehicle to Michigan, without the county’s permission or knowledge. As I recall, Michigan was where Linda was moving. She danced all around that, never did admit she had done it without the county’s permission or knowledge.She said the county provided SUFA the vehicle to use as it needed it, so it was okay for her to use it to move the unwanted animals to Michigan, where they would be happier and probably not killed by whoever ended up with them down here.

    I also told Linda I had only heard good things about the way she ran SUFA and was with the animals, but the other things I told her caused me to have concerns.

    I reported the above at goodmorningfloridakeys.com back then, and that freezing SUFA’s bank account was a serious, extraordinary move by Danny Kohlage, which could only be justified by a real and present threat to the county treasury. I think Danny may have ended up wishing he had not done it, but in the heat of it, perhaps he felt he had no other choice.

    It was not like Danny, based on what I knew, to do something like that. He had always seemed a straight arrow to me. He even opposed using county special tax money to restore Seven Mile Bridge, because he felt there was no legal justification for using the money for that purpose. I was at the county commission meeting in Marathon when he voted alone against using county special tax money to restore Seven Mile Bridge. I felt that would be like New York not funding maintenance and restoration of the Statue of Liberty.

    • Feel like I should point out a few things.

      1. All the animal shelters raise money through donations. FKSPCA, SHARK, HACC. The county isn’t entitled to any of that.

      2. Animal shelters throughout the south adopt animals out to homes in the north. It’s extremely common. I just adopted a pup from Mississippi. There are far fewer homeless animals and many more adoptive homes available. It’s just the right thing to do, which is probably why the county hated it.

      3. Kolhage is no straight arrow. He plays the part and people let him. One example, he and his ex-felon business partner Greg Veliz failed to pay sales tax and got nabbed by the state. I’ve heard some other chatter that I haven’t been able to verify yet. Can’t wait to hear what Rick has to say about Kolhage’s doings regarding the SUFA matter.

      4. The county funds park projects throughout the Keys – including Higgs Beach in Key West. The 7-mile bridge is an iconic landmark and a Keys-wide attraction. Kolhage approves his own pet projects and grandstands against projects elsewhere.

  7. Town Fool Sloan, it looks like you, too, were fooled by Mr. Kohlage. SUFA’s funds were frozen in a secret and surprise move, prior to completion of the audit. After the freeze occurred and litigation had started, Mr. Kohlage announced that SUFA had denied him access to their records, but this was not true. What was true was that the Clerk’s office was now under legal scrutiny for their actions. SUFA’s attorney requested that the County follow the same legal procedures that were demanded of SUFA in their requests for County information, something that Mr. Kohlage did not much care for. Years of being in the top tier of Bubba politics brings a sense of entitlement, it seems.

    You also incorrectly assumed that I was planning to leave SUFA. Quite the contrary. I was looking forward to continuing as director while SUFA expanded operations This would have decreased the number of unwanted animals in the Keys by offering sanctuary for animals in an area where there are fewer strays and more available homes. In fact, after SHARK took over the Marathon shelter, they continued to send dogs from the Keys to SUFA’s Michigan sanctuary.

    You were right on one point- SUFA did move animals to Michigan in a County vehicle But SUFA paid to lease the vehicle and the lease did not restrict travel. SUFA also paid for the vehicle’s insurance.

    You also claim that SUFA should have told the County that we had other sources of income in addition to the county stipend. In fact, no less than seven prior annual audits had been turned into the County, all of which included a comprehensive list of incoming revenue.

    Former County employee turned whistle-blower Matt Gardi has made an excellent video documenting the fraud he witnessed in the County Clerk’s office. He presented it to the BOCC – to no avail. It is available by FOIA request or possibly through Google. This, along with Rick’s excellent reporting, offers disturbing insight into the reality of politics- Monroe County style.

    • Linda, except for SUFA’s records, what I wrote are things you and I talked about when you called me. I gave you my thoughts. You knew you were leaving when you stood before the county commissioners asking for additional funding for SUFA. You knew someone else was going to run the shelter down here. You were going to stay involved from Michigan, as I recall. I told you I did not feel you had any right to take a county vehicle to Michigan. That was never contemplated by the county when it provided the vehicle to SUFA. If that vehicle had wrecked en route to Michigan, killed someone, the county could have been on the line for that, because it was not on county business, insurance carrier might have declined coverage.

      What I don’t know much about is what role George Neugent might have had in it, which Rick Boettger is pursuing. Certainly, I felt George was totally out of bounds letting Sombrerro Country Club comp his membership there. That, to me, was the gravest of what came out from Rick’s ethics complaint against George, which was not contested. I knew during the 2010 county commission race that the club was comping George’s membership, but the person who could prove it would not step forward, after reporting it to someone who reported it to me, wanting me to go after it. I declined, said the person working at the club, the snitch, is who should report it. I can’t prove it. I thought it should be reported to the State Attorney, not to the Florida Ethics Commission, which I knew was bogus.

      The Cudjoe Regional Sewer District grinder pump fiasco bugged me, too; and George was in the thick of that, backing it all the way; belittling his constituents in that part of the Keys as if they were what county commissioner Heather Carruthers likes to call “chopped liver,” when she feels she has been slighted and treated like chopped liver.

      Rick Boettger has plenty on his plate just going after George Neugent for, Rick says, trying to steer the animal shelter to friends. I had no sense of any of that back when you and I spoke on the telephone, Linda. I do recall feeling while you and I talked, and afterward, that I didn’t have the same glowing view of you as other people had; it was not an easy conversation for me we had after you called me. I didn’t feel you ended up glad you did call me. I tend to end up on issues where nobody else ends up.

      • Sloan, you’re going way out of your way to take the spotlight off of Kolhage. Why?

        If Neugent’s aim was to target SUFA in order to give the contract to someone else, he couldn’t have done it without Kolhage’s help. It makes no sense to look at Neugent and ignore Kolhage.

        If Neugent was clearly in the wrong than a competent, non-corrupt Clerk would have discovered that in process of the audit. And would have pointed it out. The BOCC can do a lot of damage with an accomplice in the Clerk’s office. SUFA is the classic example.

  8. Rick, excellent investigative reporting. Corruption coupled with protection of the corrupted seems to be the norm in all levels of government, local, state, and federal.
    Term limits might help, but the disease goes deeper to core issues of sanctioned/legitimized greed sweeping away the moral obligations of our “leadership” to work for the greater good. So many seem incapable, but with the glaring evidence ignored by the media and the average “Joe” these people stay in positions of power and influence. I’m glad you and Blue are on it. I look forward to your follow-up. Thank you for your diligence!